By Emir Dedic
Every time I look at my desktop I see a mountain. It changes almost weekly (I know, I am a computer nerd). Every time I look at that mountain I want to go out and run. I want to go out and sign up for a challenging mountain race. I want to go up. That is usually when I remember that I live on the East Coast in a fairly flat area. What do I do now? I am already signed up for some tough races with a lot of vertical gain, so how do I get myself in shape to run those hills?
One of my goals this year is to get better at running on hills. I was doing a lot of research on how to accomplish this as I live in a pretty flat area, and I am somewhat challenged on time due to family and work obligations. I do not have a luxury to drive 2-3 hours away to hit some East Coast “mountains”. Running hills has many cardio-vascular and muscular benefits. They are a great way to boost your performance even if you are not planning on running any mountainous races. As Frank Shorter said, “Hills are speedwork in disguise.”
Here are 3 ways to get better at running hills and to get your body ready for those big races.
Hill repeats are your friend – While most of us flatlanders might not be able to run for 3-4 or 5 miles uphill at the time, gaining 2000 feet or more, we can do long hill repeats. Find a biggest hill in your area, preferably one that takes at least 5-6 minutes to run up. Of course if there is nothing like that, find something shorter, or ever a parking garage (do mind cars please). If you are not used to running hills at all, start out slow, doing 1-2 repeats at an easy effort. Jog back down the hill and repeat. Try not to do more than 1-2 of these workouts a week at first as your body adjusts to terrain and new challenge. After few weeks of this feel free to bump up number of repeats and intensity. If you feel comfortable enough, increase your speed in the last third right before the top. This will give you that confidence to keep going strong as you reach the top. Repeats can be done at a hard effort to increase speed, or at easy to medium effort to try to match level of vertical gain of your upcoming race. Unfortunately, sometimes that can mean many, many repeats.
Treadmill is your friend – I know, I know, a lot of you hate the treadmill. However, it is a necessary evil, especially if you live in an area that is flat. What a great way to get some vertical in. Of course it is not the same as running outside, but you are still working those uphill muscles needed for your race. So just do it. Similar technique to hill repeats can be used to break up a long (boring or interesting) treadmill run. Good interval workout consist of warming up for 10-15 minutes, and then doing 5-6 x 3 minutes up on a challenging incline with 2 minute recovery in between. Longer intervals can be added for more advanced runners.
Another great way to use a treadmill in the flatlands of the East is a long steady incline. Warm up for 10-15 minutes, set the incline to a desired number, and go long. This is an easy way to get in that long steady climb that you won’t find outside.
Don’t forget about the long run – Short hill repeats are great for strength and speed, but to really get in race shape, you need that long run. While a flat, long run will boost your endurance, it won’t do much to prepare you for a long hilly/mountainous run. In an area where it is impossible to incorporate this long hilly run, the best option is to find a hilliest loop and run that multiple times. It will get your body used to going up and down while going long. If there is no such loop, find a hill during your long run and just do several hill repeats during your run, up and down that one hill. It is not the same but it is something. And if even that is not an option, that treadmill is starting to look really good.
Bonus Tip – Downhills: Running up is certainly beneficial, but the real quad killer is the downhill. Every other week or at least once a month, do a specific downhill workout. Simply reversing the hill repeat workout will help you accomplish this. Jog easily up the hill, and then run at a steady fast pace down the hill. At first this will feel very uncomfortable and/or scary, but as you get more practice you will be able to go faster and faster. It takes time and practice to perfect the downhill technique. Focus on running easy and taking short soft strides. Always try to land slightly in front or under your body. Unfortunately, unless you have a really fancy (expensive) treadmill, you will have to practice downhill running outside.
It is very important to remember not to jump into any hill training abruptly as your body can get injured easily. Always warm up with at least 10-15 minutes easy running, and don’t forget to perform some dynamic stretches before going into any hill workout. Your body will thank you later.
Now that you are equipped with tools for hill running, go and run and get ready for that new challenge ahead.